The L Word: Pittsburgh

What's a girl gotta do?!

Imagine a space filled with women; all dancing, laughing, conversing. These women are lesbians, so lots of conversing I might add. A place where even for only a few hours, everyone feels safe and free to be themselves. This is not an illusion. It’s a lesbian bar, and once upon a time in Pittsburgh, there were quite a few.

Long before the ‘All Are Welcome Here’ inclusion signs, it was a typical weekend for many women to head to Shawn’s 1209 (Shawn’s) bar in Uptown to have a drink, socialize, dance, and play pool. Some went to The Norreh Social Club (Donny’s), while others would head to The Tender Trap (Now Casbah in Shadyside). Lesbians and feminists who wanted more than a bar scene would find themselves at Wild Sisters in the South Side. Wild Sisters was the first feminist bar, cabaret, and restaurant in Pittsburgh, and later became Bloomers. Bloomers was also considered to be more than a club. It was a women’s space with open mics, where support groups met up, and benefits were held. Many lesbians ventured to clubs succeeding these initial landmark bars. Places such as Zack’s Fourth Avenue where the ladies took over the upstairs dance floor. Other popular lesbian hangouts were places such as Players, Bubba’s, the Frog Pond, and Skylights. And lest we forget CJ’s on West Liberty Avenue. That was the only lesbian bar still around when I first came out, and I remember forgetting a lot of nights there.

If you’re a lesbian of a certain age, you will likely recall those times with bittersweetness. Society was not as evolved, and we could only live our truths in certain rooms in certain pockets of time.

Gone are those days, thankfully. Sadly, also gone are those bars that got us through some unbelievably hard times.

We are without a single lesbian bar in Pittsburgh and have been for quite some time. We are not alone, however. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were upwards of 200 bars that catered to lesbian, bisexual, and queer women across the United States. Currently (as of November 2022) there are an estimated 27 lesbian bars remaining. 27 bars in just 17 states.

The red state of Texas has two bars, while Pennsylvania has zero. BOOOOOOOOO!

Some of the current and remaining lesbian bar owners have speculated such a decline due to the assimilation of queer folks, gentrification, and the prevalence of dating apps. The majority of bar owners have noted the economic barriers the most vulnerable within the LGBTQ+ community face as another reason.

“The wage gap discrimination is a huge part of this,” said Ally Spaulding, general manager of A League of Her Own in Washington, D.C. “Obviously, women earn less than men, and on top of that, Black women, Latino women, Asian women earn significantly less. So, if you’re looking at the capital of white cis gay men versus the capital of white, Black, brown, Asian, Latina, queer women, the disparity is huge. And therefore, it takes twice as much work for us to gain the capital because we are underpaid across the board.”

Personally, I’ve always felt the lack of lesbian sex in bathrooms has been a reason we lesbians couldn’t sustain the bars or have our own Club Pittsburgh. I digress.

The Lesbian Bar Project cites demographic changes, the wage gap, and other city-specific reasons for the more than 200 lesbian bar closures since the 1980s. The Lesbian Bar Project is a campaign created by New York City-based filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street to “celebrate, support, and preserve the remaining lesbian bars in the US.” They decided to create a fundraiser to provide financial support to lesbian bars across the country.

The project launched on October 28, 2020 with a PSA video narrated by Lea DeLaria (Big Boo of Orange Is the New Black) that announced a 30-day fundraising campaign to support the last 21 lesbian bars left in the country, many of which were financially threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. By November 2020, the project had raised $260,000 and many attribute that as the reason more of these bars continued to stay open. Since the project was launched, additional lesbian bars have opened.

After the last lesbian bar closed in Pittsburgh, we found ways to meet up outside of the gay bars typically occupied by droves of gay men. They don’t call us resourceful for nothing! We found non-LGBTQ+ spaces that had ‘gay nights’, such as The Muse in Shadyside, which devoted one night a week to the lesbian crowd. We met for coffee and stayed for cocktails at Tuscany Cafe in the South Side. I also went there for the Queer As Folk nights with the gay boys. I loved Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), sue me. We flocked to CC’s in Sharpsburg for unofficial ladies’ nights, where I can’t verify if we were actually invited. Either way, we had a blast with DJ Kelli Burns.

Then in 2008 Victoria Bradley gave us Lez Liquor Hour. What a time to be alive. For those who weren’t there, Lez Liquor Hour was a monthly lesbian meetup at various restaurants, venues, and clubs all around Pittsburgh. At times, there would be 300+ women in attendance. It was the women’s equivalent to the G2H2 (Gay Guy Happy Hour) men’s happy hour. Lez Liquor Hour (LLH) preceded several lesbian/queer social groups and lasted until 2014.

In late 2013, iCandy Pittsburgh came onto the scene. iCandy Pittsburgh was created by Eileen Halloran to enhance the LGBTQ community’s options for fun ways to mingle and meet new friends.

“I wanted to create a fun, flirty night out on the town for our LGBTQIAA+ friends”, said Eileen. “iCandy has grown exponentially since our first event at Cruze Bar. We have made many wonderful connections with beautiful people in our community through our events. We have hosted a variety of live music events, dance parties, picnics, fundraisers, art shows, an 80’s boat cruise, and many comedy shows featuring lots of wonderful local and nationally known comics.” I can attest to that. iCandy and Eileen have given me the opportunity to meet and work with many amazing comedians over the years. As for that 80’s boat cruise, you really had to be there. Who wouldn’t want to be ensconced on a boat with 120 women you may or may not have scissored once or thrice?! “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

iCandy took a hiatus during the pandemic but is now back and ready to party.

Crush Hour at the Alcove. Photo by Mara Rago.

In 2019, Kristin Fezar, Ashley Durham, Cassie Lloyd, Emily King, and Mary DeMino collaborated to create Crush Hour. Crush Hour is a monthly/Friday happy hour for Pittsburgh’s queer ladies and non-binary people.

“In a time where queer spaces are closing up shop, and the most viable ways to meet someone new is through an app or playing a sport, we really need and deserve as many choices as possible. Trans & non-binary inclusion is massively important to us. We want everyone to feel welcome and have a place to find friends and make connections. We are averaging 150 people per event. Queer spaces in PGH are curated for cis white gay men and while we love and support those spaces we have to be an active part of creating spaces for everyone in our community. We vet every space that we go to to ensure that spaces are queer affirming. It’s just good to know as many safe spaces as possible even if they aren’t queer owned bars. We’re a group of softball players and rec sport athletes that came to the realization that if we didn’t play a sport in Pittsburgh, we wouldn’t have found some of our closest friends and for some of us, our partners. We are so grateful that people continue to come out and party with us.” – Crush Hour

We also welcome Steel Carabiner to the LGBTQ community.

“Steel Carabiner is a bi-weekly Lesbian, Dyke, Sapphic Appreciation Party held at Blue Moon Bar. It started back in October 2021. Venus Doom is the host and producer of the event. We have drink specials and free pool starting at 5pm and Dj to curate a dance party from 9pm until 2am. We also have pop up performances from all different kinds of sapphic artists (drag, burlesque, comedy, dancers, poets, etc) from all over Pittsburgh and the surrounding states generally around 10pm and 11pm. There is on occasion special event nights where we raise money to donate to local LGBTQIA+ organizations, such as TransYOUniting, Proud Haven, and Change Rape Culture. Always fresh and exciting! We are focused on creating a space for sapphic folks and those who support the community.” – Steel Carabiner

While the times have changed, one thing remains. Our resilience. We may no longer have specific buildings devoted to us, but we’ve carved out spaces for ourselves and we’ve taken others along with us. We continue to grow, learn, and heal.

If you’re of my generation (Gen X), or the generations preceding, you probably get nostalgic thinking back. Though society once kept us hidden in the dark, crammed into small, often undisclosed spaces, there was a sense of family, a home there in those rooms. A safe haven. Our sanctuary. Something our biological families, straight friends, and younger LGBTQ persons may never understand.  Though I am grateful to now live my life out loud, I think fondly of those moments when I’d discover another gay woman at work or in a grocery store, or gym and we’d give that nod of acknowledgement. It was like the gay Jeep wave. The friendly salute that without words said, “I see you. I am you. Let’s go back to my place.” Okay, I made the last one up.

And while I’d still love to create the lesbian dating version of Grindr and call it CuddlR or ScissR, I also can’t help but believe that we will see another lesbian bar here in Pittsburgh in our future. Until then may we forge ahead like Ilene Chaiken. (We’ll see you again, Jennifer Beals.) May we withstand the crumbling world around us with fortitude, like Lucky’s Bar…

Chrissy Costa is a local comedian known for her dry wit, satirical style of comedy, and big earrings. Before doing stand-up she studied sketch comedy at Chicago’s famed Second City. You can follow her on Instragram and Facebook. (She / Her / Hers)